Sandra Cohen Margulius reviews HELLO STEPHEN by Stephen Roger Powers

This review was originally published in the museum of americana (issue 4).

hello-stephenStephen Roger Powers, a poet/writer hailing from the state of Wisconsin, earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now teaches at Gordon State College in Georgia. He has been published in Shenandoah magazine, Poets on the Promise of America (University of Iowa Press), and has received two Pushcart Prize nominations for his fiction and poetry.  He began his first full length book, The Follower’s Tale, published by Salmon Poetry in 2009, while still working on his PhD.  First called, “Chasing Dolly,” the name was changed upon publication.  The Follower’s Tale is a collection of bluegrass inspired lyric and narrative poems inspired by his muse, singer/actress, Dolly Parton.  Powers’ newest collection of poetry to be published in the summer of 2014 by Salmon Poetry, Hello, Stephen, continues this journey down the road to Dollywood, again using Parton as his muse.

With poems that weave Dolly in and out of the speaker’s life and adventures, Hello, Stephen constantly surprises the reader with its sense of humor, colorful detailed imagery, pop-culture references, and impressive narrative storytelling.  It is a type of work that provides something for every poetry reader from novice to the well-read. 

In Hello, Stephen, Powers transports us not only into the deep south of the United States, but around the world, from common cities like Chicago,  to exotic places such as Hawaii, India, and Paris, where Dolly sometimes peeks her head in and out in his narratives. In his poem, “If You Ask Dolly to Take Off Her Shoes in Hawaii She’ll Cross the Threshold,” the speaker describes Dolly as she

balanced on stilettos for so long

she can no longer walk flatfooted, that

she has rubber heels for the shower?

And in “The Great Chicago Earthquake of 2002, Dolly teeters on yet another pair of her famous shoes:

The ghost of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow spared the House of Blue

the night Dolly Parton teetered into that toddlin’ town

in her pointed-toe mules with mile-high heels. . . .”

Dolly finds herself poking into the speaker’s love life, travels, and has even found a permanent home on his tattooed arms.

In “Dolly Sees Dolly”, the speaker describes a fantasy meeting, where Dolly comes face to face with her image permanently etched on his arms:

So let’s talk about that Dolly tattoo getting inked.

The first thing it sang to me in healing, when the flaky

skin around her mouth fell away a few days later,

was, “He’s got a wandering eye and a traveling mind

big ideas and a little behind.”  How funny when things

we’ve always known become known. . .


In the moment of eye contact, the Dolly cartoonized

on my right arm from elbow to wrist flares hot,

tingles green and yellow, balloons life-size and more,

flames in full Dollyized make-up color, hair teased,

lips red as two ruts through a wet Georgia

junkyard, puff of smoke and flashing spotlights,

neon pink signature logo a glow-stick butterfly

looping in the air around you & me.

Not only is Powers’ poetry full of Dolly imagery and humor, but he is not just a one trick pony.  His use of real, identifiable details and imagery, his sense of humor, his distinctive voice, interesting titles, and poems of lost loves call to all of us on one level or another.  His poems go from humorous and witty to pieces full of the angst of a lost love without skipping a beat.

In, “Sunday After,” Powers is simple and to the point in his poignant description of the losing of a love:

If I could misplace a single morning

It would be this one. . .

Where can I fold up

and put away today’s

morning, so vast and wide the falling tablecloth

in my chest cannot settle over it all?

In the poem, “Withdrawal,” Powers constant references to the pop culture in our everyday lives creates so much imagery and concreteness that we can’t help but relate to the times and objects he is referring to.

. . . and Lawrence Welk chisels

Kathy Ireland out of a half-eaten

Klondike Bar, her sickly skinny fudge

Legs melt down a playground slide

In the hot Columbia sun and

Drip like Beethoven’s piano notes. . .


And Elvis howls

‘ain’t nothing but a Jolene’

while my accordion flamencos

with Dr. Frank N. Furter at the picture

show, straight through the fuzzy credits

like wet shoes bouncing

down a laundry chute.

Not only does Powers entrance us with his humorous word-pictures, but the imagery and words he uses make us feel like he himself is writing songs to the reader, creating rhythms and roller-coasters of surprising word phrases that continue to draw us in line by line.

Patrick Hicks, author of The Commandant of Lubizec and This London, summarize this work, by writing, “Hello, Stephen, is full of hot Georgia nights, wonderment in India, and tattoos—both real and emotional—that have been stitched onto skin. . . His language burns with the same joy and heat of a firework sizzling up from Dollywood.”

Having read the first book, The Followers Tale, I can honestly say that this work is an even more mature take on the Dolly muse.  She is certainly present, but her role is more like a phantom figure or guardian angel who jumps from the background to the forefront and then back to the background.  Powers takes more risks and has the speaker open himself up with more vulnerability than the first work, in my opinion, which makes it even more poignant and telling.  The sense of loss, whether it be lost loves or loss of innocence, is another thread that is woven throughout the book, but there is also that sense of hope that Dolly will continue to be there to influence, and inspire Powers.  She will forever be etched in his heart, on his tattoos and in his writing.

As Thomas Lux wrote in tribute to the book, “Brooding, funny, sensuous, textured, drunk on language, this book is a wonder of precision of a passionate involvement with the world and many of its (shall we say “unique”) humans.”

Powers is a talented and up and coming young poet with many more years of stories to tell us in his uniquely powerful, image-filled, humorous and detailed writing. There is something here for everyone who loves fully fleshed out narratives, lyrical poems, those who just love the music of words, and poetry that makes you think.   My sense is that we are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg with his talent.

Sandra Cohen Margulius’s poem, Women and Birds was selected the 2005 winner in the RUNES, a Review of Poetry, Literary Journal, Signals edition.  Her work has also appeared in Blood to Remember:  American Poets on the Holocaust, 2nd edition, 2007, The Cream City Review, Radiance Magazine, Hodge Podge Poetry, Women Writing, Buffalo Bones, Robin’s Next, A Wise Women’s Garden, Hey Listen, Laughing Boy,and Sparkle, Sizzle, Hiss.  Her poem My Mother Ironed  appeared Capitol BookFest Project in November, 2007. Her tribute poem to Holocaust survivor, Aunt Betty, recently was published in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. Her latest venture was an interview and review of her longtime poet friend Stephen Roger Powers latest book in The Museum of Americana online magazine.   She completed her MA in Creative Writing in December of 2001 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, inspired by poets/ teachers, Susan Firer and William Harrold.  Margulius is married, the mother of three grown children, grandmother of six amazing children, and continues to live and write in Bayside,Wisconsin with her husband, Simon.